Did a “Flip or Flop” Fan Save Host Tarek El Moussa Life?

It’s amazing what an astute fan can do!

Registered nurse Ryan Read was watching a marathon session of HGTV’s real estate show Flip or Flop, when she noticed something troublesome about host Tarek El Moussa. He seemed to have a lump growing over his thyroid. Not wanting to appear to be a stalker, Read tracked down the show’s production company, and sent them an email:

This is not a joke. I’m a registered nurse. I’ve been watching Flip or Flop. I noticed that the host Tarek has a large nodule on his thyroid, and he needs to have it checked out.

El Moussa had already suspected that something was wrong. He seemed to be having difficulty swallowing and the lump was getting bigger.  Tarek told People magazine, that he “actually went to the doctor twice for it, and they said it’s nothing. So, once I saw [the note from Read], I was like, ‘You know what? I need to get a second opinion.’ ”

A biopsy of the lump showed that it was indeed cancerous, and on June 12, El Moussa had is entire thyroid removed. Unfortunately, the cancer had spread to lymph nodes near the thyroid. This meant that he had to undergo radioactive iodine therapy. This means that Tarek had to severely limit the amount of time he could spend with his wife and co-host Christine and their young daughter Taylor, even having to sleep in a separate bedroom.

But it’s not all bad news. Doctors told Tarek that the cancer had not spread beyond the neck, and he and Christina have been able to get back to work filming new episodes of Flip or Flop. And next week he should find out if he is cancer-free.

Christina and Tarek will be discussing his cancer battle on the show The Doctors this Thursday. They are looking forward to meeting and thanking Ryan Reed, who will also be on the show.

We’ve done several stories about thyroid cancer. For the basics about the thyroid see our stories about Roger Ebert and Brook Burke-Charvet.

Today we will concentrate on thyroid cancer treatment with radioactive iodine.

What is Radioactive Iodine Therapy?

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Radiation therapy may be given after surgery to kill any thyroid cancer cells that were not removed. Follicular and papillary thyroid cancers are sometimes treated with radioactive iodine (RAI) therapy.

I-131The thyroid gland absorbs nearly all of the iodine in your body. It uses this iodine to make thyroid hormone. Radioactive iodine (I-131) is a radioactive form of iodine that is used in medical diagnostic and treatment procedures. It has a radioactive decay half-life of about eight days.

RAI is taken by mouth in a capsular form. It collects and concentrates in any remaining thyroid tissue, including thyroid cancer cells that have spread to other places in the body. Since only thyroid tissue takes up iodine, the RAI destroys thyroid tissue and thyroid cancer cells without harming other tissues.

How is RAI given?

Many people get I-131 therapy in a clinic or in the outpatient area of a hospital and can go home afterward. Other people have to stay in the hospital for one day or longer.

Most radiation from I-131 is gone in about one week. Within three weeks, only traces of radiation remain in the body.

During treatment, you can help protect your bladder and other healthy tissues by drinking a lot of fluids. Drinking fluids helps I-131 pass out of the body faster.

Some people have mild nausea the first day of I-131 therapy. A few people have swelling and pain in the neck where thyroid cells remain. If thyroid cancer cells have spread outside the neck, those areas may be painful too.

You may have a dry mouth or lose your sense of taste or smell for a short time after I-131 therapy. Gum or hard candy may help.

A rare side effect in men who receive a high dose of I-131 is loss of fertility. In women, I-131 may not cause loss of fertility, but some doctors advise women to avoid getting pregnant for one year after a high dose of I-131.

Researchers have reported that a very small number of patients may develop a second cancer years after treatment with a high dose of I-131. See the Follow-up Care section for information about checkups after treatment.

Because a high dose of I-131 also kills normal thyroid cells, you’ll need to take thyroid hormone pills after this treatment to replace the natural hormone.

What precautions can I take to protect my family?

Not only are patients radioactive for several days after treatment, the objects they touch may become radioactive. Although patients excrete the bulk of their radiation in three days, traces may linger in the body for as long as two weeks.

To reduce the risk of secondhand I-131 contamination, the National Council for Radiation Protection and Measurement recently released more than 200 pages of guidelines for treating patients with radioactive therapies. They advise I-131 patients to:

  • Avoid holding children for more than 10 minutes a day for 21 days after treatment.
  • Sleep alone for a full week after treatment or 24 days if your bedmate is pregnant.
  • Try to stay as far from other people as possible “to the extent that’s reasonable.”

For more information about thyroid cancer, click here to go to the Resounding Health Casebook on the topic.

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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